80 things I love about Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is 80 years old today.  Bob Dylan is endless. You can go as deep as you want. You can have casual knowledge of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or you can devote your life to him. I’m somewhere in midstream when it comes to Dylan fandom, which goes deeper and further than most people would ever imagine, but I can’t deny that the man’s words and music have changed the way I look at the world. 

Dylan is unknowable in many ways, like trying to grab a handful of mist. That’s also kind of appealing in today’s share-everything celeb culture. There’s at least 80 different Bob Dylans I can think of, and probably 800 more. 

In celebration of Bob’s 80th, here’s 80 Things I Love About Bob Dylan: 

1. “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more,” and how those words are all of us at some point in our lives. 

2. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video:

3. My dentist, who’s a big Dylan fan, and his famous recurring dream: “I’m having the dream again. I’m the on-call emergency dentist. Bob Dylan’s people call, and there’s a problem. I have to do an emergency root canal, and we become friends. He writes a song about me.”

4. “You’re No Good,” the first song on the very first Dylan album, where 20-year-old Bob sounds like a 20-year-old imitating a 70-year-old. And yet, it works. 

5. That there’s never been a better takedown of a murdering racist than the way he spits out the name “William Zanzinger” in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” 

6. The way the light looks on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan:

7. The fact Dylan slipped a Nightmare on Elm Street reference into his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul.”

8. Also, all of “Murder Most Foul,” proof that it’s never too late in one’s career to craft a masterpiece. 

9. Every single second of the roaring surreal carnival that is “Tombstone Blues,” but particularly the way he draws out the lines “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” and how I can never stop wondering what that means.

10. “Wiggle Wiggle” might just be the worst song Dylan ever recorded, proof that we all have bad days. 

11. The final panel of the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and one of the best uses of a Dylan quote ever:

12. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a song title that sounds like a forgotten ‘80s cop show set in Miami. 

13. When I saw him play in Oxford, Mississippi decades ago, he played the anti-racism track “Oxford Town” (about the college’s brutal racist anti-integration protests in 1962) for the first and so far only time live, which was ballsy and kind of like Neil Young playing “Ohio” at Kent State. 

14. The sheer elegant snark of the 1965 press conference in San Francisco

15. This photo:

16. Dylan and Johnny Cash just kind of screwing around on tape circa 1970 and still sounding like geniuses at play. 

17. How Dylanologist Greil Marcus managed to make an entire hefty book out of examining a single song, “Like A Rolling Stone.” 

18. Over hundreds and hundreds of performances, the “How does it feel?” refrain in “Like A Rolling Stone” never quite sounds the same twice. 

19. “What is this shit?” – The start of Greil’s infamous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s 1970 Self Portrait album. 

20. Dylan’s marvellous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, which includes a backhanded compliment: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?””

21. This moment in the amazing documentary Dont Look Back

22. The way that nearly-lost gem “Blind Willie McTell” sounds as if it’s being sung at the bottom of a well, from a place beyond time.

23. How he barks out the song title of “Forgetful Heart” with a startling intensity that immediately makes you sit up and pay attention.  

24. The way he breaks down on the intro into stoned giggling on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Take 1” on The Bootleg Series Vol 12, reminding you he’s human after all. 

25. …“He said his name was Columbus, and I just said good luck.” 

26. I’m not a big fan of Dylan’s “born again” Christian rock period, but there are gems to be found there, particularly “Gotta Serve Somebody” in its rollicking gospel rock live versions. 

27. He says it was because he stopped smoking, but I still love Dylan’s baritone croon in the Nashville Skyline era, smoother and somehow sexier than he ever sounded again. 

28. That he has a whiskey brand called, of course, “Heaven’s Door.” 

29. This photo, and Dylan’s eyebrows in it:

30. Seeing the Academy Award Bob won resting near his piano, casually, at his gigs.

31. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, the first album of his I ever owned. It took me a while to grow into it. 

32. However, it was 1989’s Oh Mercy that became the first Dylan album I really discovered and soaked in, and the road map into a lifetime. 

33. The late Sally Grossman’s zen bohemian pose on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home.

34. That Dylan legendarily got the Beatles stoned for the first time. What a punk.

35. The rumbling guitar chords and drum beats that amble in the beginning of “Thunder On The Mountain,” and Modern Times, featuring one of Dylan’s tightest bands ever. 

36. Also, the way he spits out, “I got the pork chops / She got the pie.” 

37. Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in the rather muddled experimental film I’m Not There:

38. “People don’t live or die, people just float” – “Man In The Long Black Coat”

39. “I Threw It All Away” live on The Johnny Cash TV Show:

40. One of the loveliest songs he ever sang, the brittle and pained 1970 take on old folk song “Pretty Saro.” 

41. The ultimate comeback to the “Judas” insult at one of his 1966 “electric” concerts: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

42. Dylan’s white kabuki-style makeup look on the Rolling Thunder tour:

43. Watching a moron try to rush the stage during the 17-minute long epic “Desolation Row” at a 2007 concert, not exactly a song that inspires mosh pits. 

44, “And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style” is one of the great metaphors.

45. I’m a fan, but many fans know way more than me. Dylanology is kind of bottomless, and “The Dylanologists” by David Kinney is a great look at some of the most obsessed. 

46. That the “Soy Bomb” guy was briefly a thing.

47. That Dylan once had the cops called on him for wandering around a neighbourhood, and the police officer didn’t know who he was.

48. That little carnival-barker moustache he started affecting several years back.

49. Not really a fan of the series of popular songs cover albums he put out a few years back, but his gravelly take on “That Lucky Old Sun” is a charmer. 

50. Back in 1996 or so I lived in Mississippi, and one of our favourite local restaurants The Harvest Cafe was closing down. On its final night an all-star cast of local musicians (including a member of Wilco) jammed for hours on songs, and the one that always sticks on my head years and years later is a joyful, valedictory “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and every time I hear it I think of old friends and gone times.  Whoo-ee, ride me high.  

51. Hunting old record stores pre-internet for a decent copy of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” and being mesmerised by their ramshackle and mysterious glory. 

52. “I’m goin’ down to Tennessee; get me a truck or somethin’.” – “Lo And Behold.”

52. Scarlet Rivera’s stunning violin refrains in Dylan’s epic “Hurricane,” the beating pulse that gives the song its blood. 

53. For that matter, the way Dylan draws out that last word in, “He could’ve been / the champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrlddddddd”

54. Standing in a queue for tickets on campus for my first Dylan concert in 1990, and hearing someone say, “Dylan? Who’s she?”

55. Memories of listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-70s pearler Street Legal while crossing the Rocky Mountains, and the bombastic “Changing of the Guards” seemed just right. 

56. “It’s not dark yet / But itttttttttt’s getting there.” – “Not Dark Yet”

57. This photo:

58. The honky-tonk piano tinkling that opens up 2012’ “Duquesne Whistle”, one of Dylan’s best attempts to approximate that old 78 records sound. 

59. The all-star “I Shall Be Released” jam at the end of The Last Waltz, one of the greatest concentrations of musical talent in history. 

60. “If you’re travellin’ to the North Country Fair…”  few songs instantly summon up such heartbreak. 

61. Dylan’s Academy-Award winning “Things Have Changed,” with that brutal little lyrical twist of the knife – “I used to care / But things have changed.” 

62. The 1976 live album Hard Rain is Dylan frazzled, exhausted and angry and yet somehow I love it for its raw and even sloppy energy, spitting through “Maggie’s Farm” like it’s a punk anthem. 

63. “Idiot Wind” is one of the harshest breakup songs ever, and every time the venom of a line like “You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” stuns me with its cold splendour. 

64: The chugging, menacing throb of 2020’s “False Prophet,” Dylan the forever outlaw: “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.” 

65: The swirling beauty of Daniel Lanois-produced “Series of Dreams,” which combines the best bits of Peter Gabriel and U2 with Dylan. 

66: With a title like “Talking World War III Blues” you wouldn’t think it’d be one of the funniest songs he’d written, with the capper being the wry way he mutters at the end, “I said that.” Cue laugh track. 

67: This album cover will always make me smile right back:

68. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.” – “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” 

69. That it took me some time to realise that the cover of Blonde On Blonde was a bit blurry on purpose. I thought I just had a bad printing. 

70. That famously infamous Newport Musical Festival “electric” take on “Maggie’s Farm” where the band sounds like a train launching into space, and the old story (likely apocryphal) that Pete Seeger was so outraged he tried to cut the cables with an axe. 

71. …And the fact there’s actually a wikipedia page called “Electric Dylan Controversy.”

72. Forget “Wiggle Wiggle,” Dylan’s croaky rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” on the rather horrific album Christmas In The Heart might just be his nadir, except I think the song actually crosses through bad, into kitsch, and then kind of right somewhere in the misty realm of great again. It’s the cheesy backup singers what do it. 

73. Dylan’s made a lot of iconic album covers. He’s also responsible for this:

74. That he covered “Froggie Went A Courtin’.”

75. Love And Theft’s “Mississippi” always struck a chord for me, especially as I moved away in 1997 heartsick and uncertain about my future, and a few years later I heard Dylan sing about me: “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Was the man bugging my house

76. That you can hear a dog barking in the background on a demo version of 1980’s sublime “Every Grain Of Sand.” Who is that dog? 

77. My fourth and possibly final Dylan concert in 2018 might’ve been the best I’ve seen of him. The band was tight, the voice was good, and nothing felt perfunctory. Phones were banned (a good thing) but I did sneak one quick photo where I’m certain I actually saw him smile at the end of the encore. If that’s the last time I ever see Dylan in person, I’m OK with it: 

78. Dylan in concert isn’t exactly chatty or action-packed, but at that same 2018 show he did come out centre stage for a vivid take on “Love Sick,” where he struck several faux-Elvis poses that were a delight to witness. 

79. If I had to pick a single Dylan lyric that speaks the most to me, that keeps pricking me with self-knowledge, we’ve got to circle back to “Maggie’s Farm” and this one: I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They sing while you slave / And I just get bored.

80. This: 

Added: And here’s a playlist of most of the tunes mentioned in the above list! Dig into the Dylan!

Hanging out with Neil Gaiman, and the glories of book festivals

Auckland may be tiny on the global scale, but we punch above our weight on festivals and events. With the pandemic thankfully under control here for now, this past weekend we held what’s probably the world’s largest literary event, the Auckland Writers Festival. 

It’s always a highlight of the year for constant readers like yours truly, and I was gutted that last year’s was a COVID cancellation.

I’ve gone along to the festival for years now, and it’s astonishing the talent we get way down here – not just some of New Zealand’s best writers, but some of the world’s. I’ve seen Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marlon James, Gloria Steinem, Peter Garrett and Jeff Tweedy, among others, been introduced to new writers like Paul Beatty or Andrew Sean Greer, and enjoyed the brilliance of homegrown authors like Elizabeth Knox, Eleanor Catton, Steve Braunias and Michelle Langstone. I’m not an obsessive stalking fanboy of my favourite writers, but it’s always rewarding to actually see them speak, and maybe even get a signature or two. 

Myself, my bald spot, Neil Gaiman.

This year’s festival felt cathartic after the chaos out there in the world, and a particular highlight was getting to spend a few hours listening to Neil Gaiman, who’s been an honorary New Zealander for much of the last year and living right here in Auckland with Amanda Palmer of late. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to say hi to Neil, whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman for decades now, since those first Sandman comics blew my tender mind way back in my final year of high school. Through his prose and essays and comics, Gaiman’s been there as one of the voices in my head and a prime influence on my own hesitant scribbles and comics. I waited for 45 minutes or so to briefly meet Neil and exchange a few words about his living here and how a Californian like me ended up here. 

The Neil queue, extending well outside the convention centre.

Astonishingly, Gaiman went on to sign books for more than five hours for hundreds of fans like me. And by all accounts, was disarmingly gracious and kind to all of them. That’s pretty amazing, and I sure wouldn’t have the patience for it. “I like to think of my readers as friends,” Neil said. Hey, that might sound a wee bit corny, but I’ll take it.

We read alone; you can listen to music, watch movies or Netflix with your mates, but when you read, it’s your brain decoding the worlds, your mind putting the pictures in your head.

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing going to writers festivals and making a community of all these solo readers, and why getting to tell a writer face to face that you’ve loved having their words dance about in your cerebrum feels so good. For a minute, the beautiful solitary experience of reading expands into something shared.

See my vest, see my vest, it’s me at my fashionable best

I’m not a fashion plate. In the pandemic world and comfortable middle age, I consider myself pretty flashy if I manage to wear a button-down shirt and pants that fit. 

But for a while in my wayward youth, I tried desperately, like almost everyone else does, to assemble an identity through what I wore. I loosely hung out with the theatre kids, nerds and punks and punk-adjacent in high school, and then with the leftie liberals and enviromentalists in my Mississippi college days.

There’s photos of me wearing horribly elaborate Duran Duran cosplay gear in the late ‘80s, at least one image of me in parachute pants MC Hammer-style (thankfully suppressed by court order) and several unfortunate pictures of my experiments in tie-dye. 

Portrait of a horribly pretentious college freshman trying desperately to look interesting, 1991.

Through it all, through my college years and on afterwards, I had one constant companion in my quest to define myself through fashion – See my vest. I bought a black suede vest sometime around the end of high school, and man, I wore that thing constantly for nearly a decade. 

It was my “Nik vest,” my attempt to stand out from the crowd in the strange world of the American South, where I was already the “weird California dude.” I’m not sure why I latched on to the vest, but I thought vests were cool – they seemed like something you’d see Christian Slater wear in Heathers, or maybe Stephen Malkmus in a Pavement video. 

The vest was flexible – with a t-shirt it was grunge, with a nice shirt it was passably fancy. I wore it everywhere – there’s photos of me in New York City at the World Trade Center towers with it, at comic conventions in the Midwest, at university and parties and weddings.

My friends gently mocked me for wearing it; I wore it so much that when I drew my daily college comic strip “Jip,” I made one of the characters (the cool one of course) constantly wear a vest and immediately got called out for the obvious attempt to homage myself. 

I wore that vest to pretend I was the kind of person I wanted to be, some kind of vaguely mysterious cool arty creative type. I succeeded at that mission perhaps 0.2% of the time I wore the vest, but I kept wearing it. Besides, it was comfortable and gave me extra pockets. 

I stopped wearing the vest quite so much in the mid-1990s after I graduated university and went on to start working as a journalist. It vanished entirely somewhere around the millennium – I don’t know, I imagine I was feeling vaguely embarrassed by it and it was also probably kind of worn out after nearly 10 years (suede was not easy to keep clean) and in another moment of stark self-invention, I chucked it.

I kind of wish I’d kept it now, not that I’d wear it in public in 2021 … But it was a symbol of who I was and who I was trying to be, and it’s sometimes worth keeping hold of those things to remember yourself by. 

Star Brand, the superhero who really sucked at his job

There’s a lot of competition for bad superheroes out there. But few of them are quite as catastrophically bad at the job as Marvel Comics’ Star Brand, who helped launch a “New Universe” of comics in 1986 and then pretty much destroyed it. 

Us old-timers remember the “New Universe” being a really big deal when Marvel and editor-in-chief Jim Shooter launched it in celebration of 25 years since Fantastic Four #1 kicked off the Marvel Universe. The hook was this new comics universe was “realistic,” and would detail the rise of superheroes in a world that had never had them. That might’ve been seen as innovative in the editorial planning meetings, but basically we ended up with a whole bunch of mediocre comics featuring superheroes who seemed vaguely embarrassed to be there, like Nightmask, Kickers Inc. and Spitfire And The Troubleshooters. The whole line was gone within three years or so. 

Star Brand, written by Shooter, was meant to be the big bang for this universe, the first real superhero and a catalyst for change. He was, but mainly because as written, Star Brand utterly sucked at his job. 

Shooter basically wrote Star Brand as a straight rip-off of Green Lantern, only with more “realistic” edges. A alien disguised as an old man grants human Ken Connell a mysterious tattoo that gives him impossible powers, but as it turns out this origin story is far more convoluted than that.  Connell is an unsympathetic, arrogant and sexist jerk, acting without thinking, and rarely truly “heroic.” The writing in Shooter’s first few issues is weirdly inert and distanced, as if in trying to be “realistic” they abandoned all the bombast and excitement of comics for something mundane.

Connell, an unimaginative mechanic, is unsure what to do with his powers, a conflict that could be interesting but basically ends up with lots of dull monologues and him doing things like visiting the Moon because he’s bored. He constantly screws up. He fights spies and muddles in the Cold War, and spends an awful lot of time cheating on his various girlfriends, and that “Old Man” who gave him his powers in the first place keeps popping back up, now apparently a villain, to fight with him every few issues. 

Shooter soon handed Star Brand over to other creators, and then it ended up in the hands of superstar creator John Byrne in his full “tear it all down and start over” mode. Byrne – who loathed Shooter – went on to do one of the biggest hit-jobs on a previous writer’s work in comics history. The cover of Byrne’s first issue finally shows Ken Connell wearing a superheroic costume after 11 issues, but it was a bit of a tease. Star Brand went public, and Byrne upped Connell’s fail factor to infinite levels by having him incinerate a comics convention full of fans during a battle, and then topping it all off by accidentally blowing up all of Pittsburgh (which was Shooter’s hometown, by the way) an apocalyptic moment that screws up the whole “realistic” vibe and basically leads into the end of the New Universe after a series of one-shots. Some of the characters and concepts have popped up now and again ever since, including a decent look back at Connell that examines his many flaws.  

A whole mess of other people end up wielding the Star Brand over Byrne’s tenure, including the President of the United States (!) and Connell’s abnormally-aged infant son (don’t ask). Connell himself dies and comes back a couple of times. After 19 issues, the series ends with a mess of timey-wimey handwaving that makes it clear that Star Brand was less a hero and more a toxic screw-up whose presence has left harm and death everywhere. At the end of the series, Connell sees himself as a man who’s caused endless suffering who deserves whatever punishment he gets. Not exactly a heroic epiphany. 

Star Brand is not a great series – those Shooter issues are weirdly slow and soulless, and the Byrne issues are rushed and rather mean-spirited in how thoroughly they tear everything down. Yet, Star Brand over its 19 issues is still fascinating to me because of how completely the “hero” at the centre of the story fails, and the story’s only solution is to negate him ever having been a hero at all.

Heroes have turned bad and been redeemed many times in comics, but there’s few series that seem to catalog one man’s utter unsuitability for great power and great responsibility quite like this one. 

Now showing: The beauty of boutique blu-rays and DVDs in a streaming world

I think I’m turning into a film snob. Maybe we all should, to bring back a little bit of the magic of the movies. 

It’s been a grim year or so for cinema as the great communal art form it was for so much of the past century. Theatres have closed, video stores are history, and streaming, while there’s a lot of great things about it, caters to the mob and the algorithms, and obscure or older movies are harder than ever to find (especially in NZ, where we don’t have all the streaming services sprouting up in the US).

But I dig going to the cinema and seeing treats old and new, and I do miss the video store era. Physical media is hurting and DVDs are vanishing from the shops even down here in the Antipodes, but for dedicated film nuts there’s still a booming niche market in what are often being called “boutique blu-ray” distributors. These companies are dedicated to lovingly repackaging and curating old movies with an appreciation for the art they are, whether they’re lofty dramas or goofy cult trash. It’s a world film nuts can get lost in – and spend too much money in – but I still love seeing ornate, beautifully assembled editions of my favourite movies arrive in the mail. Who knew that the 1960s Japanese kaiju flick Mothra could look like such a work of art?

Unlike a streaming selection, they’re there whenever I want them, and the plentiful special features, gorgeous box art and essay-filled booklets are all part of the handsome little bespoke packages. You do need a good solid multi-zone player – and boy, I wish someone would explain to me why companies still insist on antiquated region coding on these discs in the age of one global marketplace. Anyway, one of the big appeals of DVDs when they first arrived was special features, but their potential ended up in just one too many boring commentary tracks by disinterested movie stars. Happily, the special features on boutique labels tend to dig deeper, treat their films with real interest and curiosity, and don’t just come off as vapid marketing exercises. 

Criterion is the grandaddy of all cineaste labels, dating back to the 1980s and the laserdisc era and still the gold standard of assembling a modern pantheon of movies from Chaplin to Kurosawa to Michael Bay. The Criterion Collection numbered editions (now well over #1,000) appeal to the gotta-have-it-all collector’s mentality and their always-amazing cover art often makes you see a familiar movie in an entirely new light. I’ve picked up many old favourites like The Princess Bride, Blue Velvet and The Life Aquatic through Criterion, but also been introduced to countless cinema classics I just took a punt on from seeing the cover art and the beckoning prestige of that Criterion label. 

But Criterion aren’t alone these days in gorgeous exhumations of old movies, with a whole slew of similar film archivists popping up in recent years. There’s Arrow Video, who tend a bit more modern with things like a wonderful package of ‘80s teen sex comedy Weird Science that gives that film way more critical appreciation than I ever thought possible.

Shout! Factory and their subsidiary Scream Factory are kings of grand cult and horror movie packages like John Carpenter’s The Thing, while Kino Lorber do an amazing job digging deep into world film and silent film history with gems such as their box set of F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking work.

The UK’s Indicator do some of the most beautiful packaging in the industry and deep dives into the hidden treasures of film. Also in the UK, Eureka Video have become a particular favourite of mine lately with their looks into vintage kung-fu with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan or the forgotten non-Frankenstein work of Boris Karloff.

Even a relatively new cult exploitation-focused outfit like Vinegar Syndrome has proved to me that I never knew I needed an amazingly comprehensive box set of beloved cheesy barbarian ‘80s flick The Beastmaster, but now that I’ve got it, it shall never leave my side. 

I could go broke investing in all the fancy box sets and special editions these companies are spitting out, but I also appreciate them massively in a day when DVDs have been shoved aside to the bargain bin dumpster in most big box stores if they even exist at all, and consumers are happy to stare on their tiny phone screen at the latest Netflix series that everyone will have completely forgotten about a week from now.

Does that make me sound like a film snob? Well, I probably am a bit, but I’m happy to wear it. I love a good popcorn flick like anybody does, and yeah, I watch stuff on my phone too sometimes, but I also want film to continue to matter. The disappointingly inert and unloved Oscars this year (despite some very good films nominated) just felt like another nail in the coffin of the idea of movies feeling a little bit special.

I’m just enjoying the companies like Criterion, Arrow, Eureka and others who treat movies as something more than another disposable distraction in a world full of them, who treat movies as little miracles whether they’re beloved world classics or gory guilty pleasures, and who make them feel like events once again. 

They were young, they were savage, they were Beatles

There’s so much I’d do if I had a time machine, but whatever happened, I know I’d have to pencil in one trip to see the Savage Young Beatles, tearing up clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool 60 years ago.

Like most people who were exposed to the Beatles long after their breakup, I first grew to love the hippie Beatles – “Yellow Submarine,” “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” As I dug into their discography, for an awful long time I dismissed the early years as pleasant but slight pop songs (OK, “She Loves You” bangs, though). I felt that it was when the Beatles got weird that they really got cool.

But as I got older, I started to appreciate the amazing tight craft those young Beatles brought to everything they did. The covers they did of old Motown hits weren’t just disposable stuff they did as they learned to write songs themselves, they were the foundation for everything that came after. And boy, the more you read about those Savage Young Beatles, you realise how hardcore they were, a leather-jacketed, hard-living group of Liverpool toughs who earned their stripes gigging in impossibly difficult conditions in Hamburg, Germany and back home in Britain long before they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and kicked off a global revolution of sorts. It’s almost impossible to actually hear now what those shows – before the albums, before stardom – were really like, but you can imagine. 

I recently finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s fab “All These Years: Tune In,” the first of three planned mammoth Beatles biographies and one that only goes up to the end of 1962, with John, Paul, George and new member Ringo poised on the edge of a wave that would catapult them into history. It’s an immense, 1000-page or so deep dive into everything that went into creating the Beatles, and it brings their hungry young days and childhoods into vivid life. You can almost smell the sweat dripping off the walls of the legendary Cavern Club, or the energy of the booze-soaked, violence-filled German clubs they pounded away in. The Beatles would play away in the Hamburg bars and clubs for hours on end, sleeping in gritty dives and relying on uppers and the boundless energy of youth to get through it all. These are the Beatles just before they adopted the Beatles haircuts, before Stu Sutcliffe died and Pete Best was fired, when they ran out of songs to play and vogued, vamped and jammed to get through the nights. It was the apprenticeship that gave them the skills to do everything after. 

And boy, wouldn’t it have been something to ride that time machine and see one of these seamy Hamburg gigs with the benefit of hindsight, to get right up close enough to see teenage George’s fingers hit those chords and the cigarette-soaked aroma of John and Paul’s voices? Few people would ever see the Beatles up this close and raw again after 1962. It’s an era that’s been explored in movies like the great, underrated Backbeat and reimagined in books, but it’s also one that is mostly left up to the imaginations. There’s only a few recordings of The Beatles late into their Germany gigs, the main one being The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg album from December 1962. The sound quality from old vinyl records of this gig are absolutely terrible, but thanks to modern technology there’s now a cleaned-up, remastered “Executive Version” of the show you can hunt for online that makes it probably as clear as we’ll ever get. It’s probably not quite what the Beatles at their pills-addled, sleep-deprived rawest would’ve been like, but it’s at least a taste. There’s an insanely amped-up, crazed version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that sounds something like The Damned mixed with Hüsker Dü. 

Still, though, wouldn’t it be something to be a fly on the wall in a dim, dark Hamburg club 60 years ago, to see a Beatles that I like to imagine sounded more like the Stooges than “Yesterday”? They were savage and young, and they’d never ever be like that again. 

Can you really watch too many kung-fu movies?

I’m not a violent man. I’ve been in like three actual fights in my life, and think I lost 2.5 of them. But I do love a good ass-kicking on the screen, the weird poetry of movie violence. 

In the pandemic era, there’s been no steady flow of blockbuster superhero epics and action flicks to look forward to. So I’ve been spending an unseemly amount of time diving into the past in search of an adrenaline fix, and eventually asking myself: Can one watch too many kung-fu movies?

I dig a good flying kick to the face, and have long loved the acrobatic chaos of Jackie Chan or the slick killer grace of legendary Bruce Lee. The scarcity of cinema visits and new movies to watch the last year or so has led me to dive even deeper into the wonderful, wacky bottomless world of martial arts cinema, a true “shared universe” of peak human suffering and mythological endurance, where men are battered, beaten and rearranged into new shapes without the benefit of CGI. There are literally thousands of movies churned out by Hong Kong and other studios in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and for every gem I’ve seen I discover another half-dozen I haven’t. 

There’s something visceral and exciting for me about seeing that Shaw Brothers studio logo opening up a film, a sign that the story ahead will provide epic action and mythic storytelling — maybe not so much character development or realistic human interaction but hey, that’s not why we’re here. Betrayal, vengeance, revenge and redemption – that covers the vast majority of themes, dressed up with an infinite number of brutal actions. 

I slid into the habit of watching more and more kung-fu flicks in recent months as a remedy to the chaos of the outside world – here, all problems can be solved by a good backwards kick-flip.

I drank in more classic kung-fu movies I’ve long meant to see, like The Prodigal Son, with Yuen Biao and the wonderful late Lam Ching-ying in one of the best zero-to-hero storytelling arcs; Sammo Hung’s hilarious bulky grace in The Magnificent Butcher and other films, the bloody King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death with its ripped eyeballs and music so memorably sampled by Quentin Tarantino; endearingly awkward Jimmy Wang Yu’s One-Armed Boxer and One-Armed Swordsman; the immensely creepy Mr. Vampire with its gloriously weird hopping “jiangshi” Eastern-style vampires. 

More recently, there’s the amazing work of Donnie Yen in films like the awesome Ip Man series and insanely intense battles in Kung Fu Killer or SPL (Kill Zone). Yen combines Clint Eastwood’s stoic Man With No Name allure with a dazzling speed and grace that’s made him one of the most exciting action heroes to watch perform in ages. 

Not every martial arts movie is equal – the attempts at humour in many “kung fu comedies” is often very broad, dated and sexist and too frequently, rather rapey for my tastes. The cheaper and goofier the movies are, the more raw and silly the experience. The cheapest kung-fu flicks like this massively fun bargain-basement box set I got a while back are watched more as archaeological experience than anything. 

Still, as much as I love these movies, one can overdose. When I start imagining everything in subtitles and every interaction involving duel of honour kicks and punches, I’ve got to back off sometimes and watch something which features actual human beings having actual conversations. The heightened, performative world of martial arts movies is such a self-contained world that it’s a shock to the system to see people in another movie going out to dinner without tables being overturned and bodies flying over the buffet. The pleasures of a good kung-fu flick are endlessly simple joys for me, but it’s never good to dine too much on just one thing. You can’t live on potato chips alone.

When I find myself with idle images of Jackie Chan somersaulting over furniture or Donnie Yen working the wing-chun dummy dancing in my brain at bedtime, it’s a sign to back off a little bit. But I always know I’ll be back, primed for yet another tale of endlessly acrobatic human beings and the damage they can do. 

Sneak preview: Amoeba Adventures #29!

Hey, it’s time for an Amoeba Adventures update!

It’s been a few months since Amoeba Adventures #28, but I’ve been busy – Amoeba Adventures #29 is all pencilled and lettered and will be 24 pages of all-new wacky adventures featuring twists, turns and shocking returns with Prometheus and Ninja Ant together in one wild detective mystery.

Look for it to premiere both digitally and with a limited-edition print version hopefully sometime in June! In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at my old-school pencils and lettering:

And remember that all 28 previous issues of Amoeba Adventures are available right over here as free PDF downloads. As always, give the Facebook page a like if you haven’t already!

Movies I Have Never Seen #9: Zardoz (1974)

What is it: The one where the late, great Sean Connery spends most of the movie wearing nothing but a giant orange space diaper. A rather big flop on its release in 1974, it’s generally regarded as one of the strangest science-fiction movies that came in that weird time in between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, when science-fiction movies turned into cosmic head-trips, equally rich in big ideas and spaced-out nonsense. How weird is Zardoz? It starts off with a floating giant stone head descending into a crowd of gun-waving savages, and delivering this speech: “Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!”

Why I never saw it: Zardoz is on the obscure side. Director John Boorman delivered the hillbilly hit Deliverance, and this was his follow-up, in the days when directors got to do whatever crazy shit they dreamed up if they scored a big box office winner. So Boorman (who co-wrote, produced and directed this passion project) came up with a lofty tale set in the distant year of 2293, where what’s left of the human population is divided into the feral “Mad Max” style “Brutals,” and the hippie immortal “Eternals,” who live in their own closed-off world. When “Brutal” “Exterminator” Zed (Sean Connery) ends up infiltrating the Eternal world, it sets up a culture clash between enlightenment and instinct, life and death, and also lots of Sean Connery doing stuff you never saw Sean Connery doing anywhere else. At first, you think this will be some kind of weird post-apocalyptic Western, but it gradually turns into a darkly funny weird riff on “Tarzan” before swerving into another bleak and nihilistic direction entirely at the climax. The movie was a bomb at the time, and post-James Bond Connery never did anything quite so strange again. But Zardoz is kind of a cult fetish object now, although still on the obscure side, and even today, its odd pace, fractured hallucinogenic narrative and overstuffed philosophy make it a bit demanding on viewers. It strives for the profundity of 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but falls a little closer to the cheeseball fest of Logan’s Run

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely, in that it’s frustrating, weird and sometimes slow and yet full of more searching ideas and deep thoughts than pretty much the entire Star Wars franchise post-1983. The experimental science fiction of the 1970s – 2001, Solaris, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, THX1138, The Man Who Fell To Earth – led to many spiritually-tinged, oddball narratives that weren’t just about people having wars in spaceships. They aren’t all successful, but there’s a fevered, inventive passion to them that is sadly missing in a lot of science fiction since. Connery’s character is curious – a monosyllabic brute at the start who gradually becomes more and more talkative and curious as he turns the tables on the “Eternals.” He’s hugely unsympathetic, raping and murdering at will, but then again the aloof Eternals are pretty flawed themselves. It’s hard to quite figure out what Boorman’s point ultimately is with the shapeshifting script, but despite all that, there’s a lot of startling images in Zardoz – the remarkably ominous floating head, groovy prisms, mirrors and colours galore, the dazed and ruined world of the Eternals, and a startling time-lapse shot at the very end that’s unsparingly brutal. 

Worth seeing? If you want your mind blown and to see Sean Connery’s least flattering wardrobe since the blue terrycloth jumpsuit in Goldfinger, Zardoz is definitely worth a look. Heck, Zed’s bizarre look was so iconic it even inspired a Superman frenemy I rather dig. It’s a movie that really is trying to make a statement, and even if in the end that statement is rather half-baked and obscure to me, it’s worth the weird, wild ride. 

Why George Harrison is my favourite Beatle these days

Asking someone about their favourite Beatle is always a kind of litmus test. Are you more of a John, or a Paul? A George or even a Ringo? 

But sometimes, the Beatle you love changes. When I was a younger, angrier man, like an awful lot of people, John Lennon was my favourite Beatle. I listened to the stark anguish of Plastic Ono Band a lot and thought that “God” was like, deep, man. I still love that album and I still love John Lennon, but due to his untimely death, the story of John Lennon’s solo career will always feel a little unfinished to me. 

The first Beatle whose solo album I actually bought was George Harrison’s 1987 chart-topping comeback Cloud Nine, with its kitschy-yet-cool bop MTV-friendly “Got My Mind Set On You” all over the place in those days. The rest of the cassette tape I scrounged my pennies together to buy was pretty good, too – it was an optimistic yet contemplative groove, smooth with an ‘80s sheen thanks to producer Jeff Lynne. “When We Was Fab” was a colourful ode to the Beatles whose own work I was just beginning to discover thanks to the CD reissues of their albums, while songs like “That’s What It Takes” and “Fish On The Sand” summed up George’s vibe – searching, yet determined. 

It’s twenty years now this year since George left us at the too-young age of 58. These days, I find myself turning to George’s solo work far more than any other of the Fab Four.  

Harrison always seemed to be looking for something in this life, and he found it mostly in the embrace of Indian music and an intense spirituality that in some folks’ view helped bring world music to a bigger audience, but other people felt it turned him into a humourless scold. 

1970’s All Things Must Pass is widely regarded as the best Beatles solo album, and it’s still a masterpiece of symphonic, elegant and yet deeply personal pop bathed in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, with Harrison showing once and for all he wasn’t “just” the third Beatle, but an incredible songwriter in his own right. It’s incredibly lush, carrying on all the sweeping soundscapes the Beatles pioneered on albums from Revolver on to Abbey Road and it’s something that few of the other Beatles’ solo albums ever were – epic in its ambition. 

Yet when you peak with your first solo album and were once in the biggest band of all time, it’s hard not to have everything else afterward seen as a letdown. And no, Harrison never quite equaled All Things again, but he still put out some stellar solo work, including its immediate followup, Living In The Material World, which continued to explore George’s obsessions – inner peace, giving up your anger, and moving on (and occasional cranky rants, like “Sue Me Sue You Blues”). 

The rest of his albums never quite get as noticed now, but even the weakest has a few good tracks to recommend. 1974’s exhausted-sounding and rushed Dark Horse might be his nadir, but an obscurity like the underrated 1982 Gone Troppo has a relaxed, chilling on the beach vibe, harking back to the doo-wop and early rock and roll that the Beatles grew up adoring. The later albums George Harrison and Somewhere In England also marry George’s wry humility with hummable tunes. As he became mired in lawsuits and battles with his record labels, George’s solo career was mainly a product of the 1970s. After 1982, he only released one proper album, Cloud Nine, and the groovy collaborations with the all-star Travelling Wilburys. His long, long in the works next album, the valedictory and blissful Brainwashed, came out in 2002 after his death. 

Harrison sometimes has a reputation as the grim, silent Beatle, but many of his albums like Cloud Nine feel bathed in happiness. It felt like George was at peace. 

There’s a unified theme amongst his albums, which is something none of the other Beatles really managed in their solo work. McCartney has carried on his quest to write dozens more perfect pop songs but his work is often lacking in a vivid personal voice for me. While he’s been by far the most prolific solo Beatle, the sheer flood of albums dilutes the quality a little too often. Lennon wrestled with the demons of his past in a few great albums, was equally as questing as George but far more self-destructive, too. He then went silent for years, and his promising comeback was cruelly curtailed. Ringo was… well, he was Ringo, good-natured and always keeping the beat. 

Lennon inherited the fierce restless intellect and urge for experimentation of the Beatles, while McCartney got the gift for melody and craftsmanship. Harrison represented something else more intangible, something I might even call the Beatles’ heart. In the best of his solo work I find that all-encompassing warm feeling that I get when I hear the heavenly harmonies of “Within You Without You,” the solos that make “Something” soar far higher than most sappy ballads ever could, the distinctive single guitar chord played by George that opens up “A Hard Day’s Night.” In other words, listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about life, the universe and everything. 

George Harrison could certainly be preachy, I’ll admit. Harrison was looking for transcendence, and the older I get, the hope in something more to this life seems to resonate. I’m not talking about organised religion, really, but just the idea that you can find a calming peace by letting go of some of your baggage and flowing like water. The world is full of mystery. George Harrison never stopped trying to understand it.

George’s biggest song was “Something,” a tune that sums up his eternal questing and curiosity in its few minutes.  Is there something out there? I sure as hell don’t know. But the idea of being at peace with yourself and finding that inner calm that George spent much of his too-short life seeking isn’t the worst goal to have in this life. 

Listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about everything, and that’s why in these often-troubled days he’s my favourite Beatle.